Lanford Wilson 1937-
The following entry provides an overview of Wilson's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 14, and 36.
A prolific writer of experimental and traditional drama, Wilson launched his career at the avant-garde Caffe Cino during the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. He later co-founded the renowned Circle Repertory Company, for which he wrote many of his major works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly (1979). Through his dynamic characters, many of whom are misfits of low social class, Wilson has explored issues of alienation, solitude, and disillusionment. His plays address themes of family conflict, gender roles and expectations, sexual identity, and the changing social landscape of America. He has been widely regarded for the authenticity and poetic rhythm of his dialogue. Wilson's style, frequently compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, is categorized as lyrical realism but frequently employs such nonrealistic devices as monologue, symbolic characters, and direct address of the audience. Wilson has enjoyed success both on and off Broadway and his works are among the most regularly produced plays in regional, college, and community theaters. Wilson remains an important voice in American playwriting, as evidenced by numerous revival productions of his plays, including Balm in Gilead, Burn This, and 5th of July, which were first produced in 1965, 1987, and 1978, respectively.
Wilson was born on April 13, 1937, in the town of Lebanon, Missouri, a setting the author often revisited in his works. When he was five years old, Wilson's parents divorced and his father moved to California. After transferring from Southwest Missouri State University to San Diego State University in 1955, Wilson was briefly reunited with his father, an event which provided inspiration for the highly autobiographical play Lemon Sky (1968). Wilson relocated to Chicago in 1956, where he began writing one-act dramas; in 1962, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in playwriting. In 1963, Caffe Cino produced Wilson's one-act So Long at the Fair, propelling Wilson into a period of intense creativity. He wrote at a frenetic pace throughout the 1960s, with most of his work premiering at Caffe Cino and other off-off-Broadway venues. Wilson's most important early plays were the full-length pieces Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966). After the suicide of Caffe Cino's producer, Joe Cino, Wilson began to utilize regional theater as a means to produce his work. In 1969, Wilson co-founded the Circle Repertory Company in Greenwich Village. He was the group's playwright-in-residence until it disbanded in 1996. With the Circle Repertory Company, Wilson produced many of his most critically and commercially successful plays: Serenading Louie (1970), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), and The Mound Builders (1975). Wilson introduced his Talley cycle—three plays about a Midwestern family set in Wilson's birthplace—with 1978's 5th of July, followed by Talley's Folley in 1979, and A Tale Told, later revised as Talley & Son, in 1981. In 1987, Wilson penned three plays in rapid succession, including the acclaimed Burn This. Wilson has continued to produce plays throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.
Balm in Gilead, Wilson's first full-length play, is a documentary-like piece depicting the lives of drug addicts, dealers, pimps, prostitutes, drag queens, and hustlers—the denizens of an all-night diner in New York City. In 1966, Wilson premiered his second full-length work, The Rimers of Eldritch, which opened at Cafe La Mama and moved off-Broadway later that year. The Rimers of Eldritch champions outcast characters and is set in a narrow-minded Midwestern town. Lemon Sky is perhaps Wilson's most personal play, a memory piece set in San Diego about a teenage boy's attempt to reconcile with his estranged father. A major critical and commercial success, The Hot l Baltimore is a lament for the past and an affirmation of humanity's ability to endure, as destitute inhabitants of a once-grandiose hotel await its demolition. In The Mound Builders, Wilson focuses on an idealistic past and the detrimental effects of modern progress. The Mound Builders centers on a team of archaeologists attempting to protect their discovery of an ancient Native American civilization from land development. 5th of July introduces the characters Ken Talley, Jr., who is a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, his homosexual lover, and his Aunt Sally. When faced with the decision of whether to sell the family home, Ken elects not to sell, affirming values of family and tradition. A younger Aunt Sally appears in Wilson's Talley's Folly, the story of Sally Talley's forbidden courtship and elopement with Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant. A Tale Told, the third and final installment in the Talley cycle, is set on July 4, 1944, the same night as Talley's Folly, and presents additional members of the Talley clan who decide to sell the family garment business to a conglomerate. In Burn This, Wilson touches on the theme of intimacy in the face of grief, exploring human sexuality and love through the characters of Anna, who is a dancer, and Pale, the incendiary brother of Anna's recently deceased roommate. Returning to earlier themes and subject matter, Wilson examined small-town hypocrisy and the search for community in Book of Days (1998). In Rain Dance (2000), set in 1945 in New Mexico, the birth of the atomic age brings together an American scientist, a Native American, and two German immigrants, each of whom has contributed in some way to the development of the atom bomb.
Wilson has been acclaimed by critics, actors, and audiences alike. Scholars have praised his inventive use of dialogue, and from his earliest works, reviewers have consistently noted Wilson's skill with language. Reflecting on Balm in Gilead, critic Anne M. Dean stated: “For all the play's visual brilliance, for me its greatest strength resides in its manipulation of language.” Wilson has been lauded for his ability to transform everyday vernacular into poetry. Commentators have observed his adept characterizations, particularly marking his compassionate depiction of society's outcasts. Wilson's talent for developing dynamic, intriguing characters has earned him a reputation as an “actor's playwright.” Audiences have admired Wilson's accessible, realistic style and tender characters, making him one of the most commercially successful playwrights of his time. Wilson has been honored with numerous awards for his craft, including the Vernon Rice Award, the Obie, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. However, critical praise of Wilson's work is not unanimous; some reviewers have bemoaned his writing as sentimental, overly conventional, and pretentious. Despite these charges, critics have widely considered Wilson an important contributor to American theater.